HERE COME THE WOOGIES
Movie Review – Free Solo
Review by Paul Preston
Movie theaters are really vying for your dollar these days. With gimmicks like 3D, Real D 3D, IMAX, IMAX 3D, Prime, 4DX and more, they’re begging you not to watch Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, HBO, etc., etc. etc. I find most of it unnecessary. A Star is Born does NOT need IMAX. But every once in a while, a real IMAX treat comes along that is not to be missed on the grandest scale. This year, it’s Free Solo.
If you’ve caught the trailer for Free Solo, you get you’re in for a vertigo-inducing trip. The film chronicles Alex Honnold’s miraculous climb to the top of Yosemite’s El Capitan rock face, free solo, or, without tethers or ropes. Normally, footage of beautiful parts of the world like Yosemite National Park are reserved for IMAX screens somewhere like a science center, but here the stunning photography in mixed with a dynamic lead personality and a story of risk, determination and peril.
At the center is Honnold, and he makes a great central figure for a documentary. He has a singular focus to climb El Cap, fierce determination to do so, and he’s quirky to boot. Once he takes on the idea of making the 3,000 ft. climb, he has to weigh everything else in his life, from diet and exercise to acceptance of death to personal relationships that could cloud his concentration.
He starts the film living in a van, no doubt part of keeping everything in his life simple. We get to know his fellow climbers who help him track his course (while tethered), his would-be girlfriend and eventually the filmmakers themselves. It’s a smart choice that pays off to include the filmmakers as part of the documentary for numerous reasons. The shoot itself is a gargantuan feat, pulled off spectacularly, with enormous danger for the camera crew (who are climbers themselves). Plus, the film crew has to weigh the idea of their very presence. Are they a distraction? Do they want to potentially film a human death? Bringing co-director Jimmy Chin on camera to address this and coordinate the shoots makes the film even more human. And I think we’re all Mikey Schaefer, a seasoned climber who can’t even watch the footage he’s shooting because it’s so crazy.
How crazy? To free solo a climb, you pretty much have to know every step you’re taking. At one point, Honnold calls them all out. To not know EXACTLY what’s next and how to achieve it could mean a fall to your death. No step is re-attempted. Plus, weather, birds, restroom necessities, other climbers and more can hang you up. There are few ledges and steps. Your life is weighed on your ability to navigate divots and cracks in the stone.
All of this is captured in magnificent IMAX cinematography by Chin, Shaefer, Matt Clegg and Clair Popkin. It feels like a no-brainer for an Oscar nod, especially since we’re privy to the intense chore that was capturing everything. The angles, the clarity and scope of the footage made me squirm in my seat with fear of heights while in a theater that was literally underground in Century City.
Free Solo isn’t just a chronicle of a soaring athletic achievement, but also a fascinating look at the sport itself. It reminded me of the Oscar-winning doc Man on Wire, which included another intriguing figure front and center, Philippe Petit, as he walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in N.Y. City. There’s no footage of that event (although Robert Zemeckis brilliantly re-created it in The Walk), the photos alone gave me the heebie jeebies. Seeing sharp IMAX footage of Honnold’s climb of El Cap is especially immersive with you-are-there immediacy. The way Petit talked about walking a tightrope was unlike any artist I’ve heard talk about the thing they love. Honnold doesn’t quite have Petit’s unbridled passion and energy (no one does!), but his desire is infections. And his inability to be swayed by the overwhelming nature of his goal is admirable. You can’t stop watching, and the greatest feature Honnold shares with Petit. They make the whole adventure FUN.
In a year of great documentaries (Hal, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?), it’s only right that Free Solo should make its way towards the peak.
Directed by: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Release Date: September 28, 2018
Run Time: 100 Minutes
Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films